SATURDAY, August 22
Elizabeth Bailey didn't like what she saw. Even now,after their H-65 helicopter came down into a hover less than two hundred feetabove the rolling Gulf, the object in the water still looked like a containerand certainly not a capsized boat. There were no thrashing arms or legs. Nobobbing heads. No one needing to be rescued, as far as she could see. YetLieutenant Commander Wilson, their aircrew pilot, insisted they check it out.What he really meant was that Liz would check it out.
A Coast Guard veteran at only twenty-seven years old, AST3 Liz Bailey knew she had chalked up more rescues in two days over NewOrleans after Hurricane Katrina than Wilson had in his entire two-year career.Liz had dropped onto rickety apartment balconies, scraped her knees on wind-batteredroofs, and waded through debris-filled water that smelled of raw sewage.
She dared not mention any of this. It didn't matter how many search and rescues she'd performed, because at the moment she was thenewbie at Air Station Mobile, and she'd need to prove herself all over again.To add insult to injury, within her first week someone had decorated thewomen's locker room by plastering downloaded photos of her from a 2005 issue ofPeople magazine. Her superiors insisted that the feature article would be good PR for the Coast Guard, especially when other military and government agencieswere taking a beating over their response to Katrina. But in an organizationwhere attention to individual and ego could jeopardize team missions, herunwanted notoriety threatened to be the kiss of death for her career. Fouryears later, it still followed her around like a curse.
By comparison, what Wilson was asking probably seemedtame. So what if the floating container might be a fisherman's cooler washed overboard? What was the harm in checking it out? Except that rescue swimmers were trained to risk their lives in order to save otherlives, not to retrieve inanimate objects. In fact, there was an unwritten ruleabout it. After several swimmers who were asked to haul up bales of drugstested positive for drug use, apparently from their intimate contact in thewater, it was decided the risk to the rescue team was too great. Wilson musthave missed that memo.
Besides, rescue swimmers could also elect not to deploy.In other words, she could tell Lieutenant Commander less-than-a-thousand-flight-hoursWilson that "hell no," she wasn't jumping into the rough waters forsome fisherman's discarded catch of the day.
Wilson turned in his seat to look at her. From the tiltof his square chin he reminded her of a boxer daring a punch. The glint in hiseyes pinned her down, his helmet's visor slid up for greater impact. He didn'tneed to say out loud what his body language said for him: "So, Bailey, areyou a prima donna or are you a team player?"
Liz wasn't stupid. She knew that as one of less than adozen women rescue swimmers, she was a rare breed. She was used to having toconstantly prove herself. She recognized the stakes in the water as well asthose in the helicopter. These were the men she'd have to trust to pull herback up when she dangled by a cable seventy feet below, out in the open, overangry seas, sometimes spinning in the wind.
Liz had learned early on that she was expected to performa number of complicated balancing acts. While it was necessary to be fiercelyindependent and capable of working alone, she also understood what thevulnerabilities were. Her life was ultimately in the hands of the crew above.Today and next week and the week after next, it would be these guys. And untilthey felt like she had truly proven herself, she would continue to be "therescue swimmer" instead of "our rescue swimmer."
Liz kept her hesitation to herself, avoided Wilson's eyes, and pretended to be more interested in checking out the water below. Shesimply listened. Inside her helmet, via the ICS (internal communicationsystem), Wilson started relaying their strategy, telling his copilot,Lieutenant Junior Grade Tommy Ellis, and their flight mechanic, AST3 PeteKesnick, to prepare for a direct deployment using the RS (rescue swimmer) andthe basket. He was already reducing their position from two hundred feet toeighty feet.
"Might just be an empty fishing cooler,"Kesnick said.
Liz watched him out of the corner of her eyes. Kesnick didn'tlike this, either. The senior member of the aircrew, Kesnick had a tannedweathered face with crinkle lines at his eyes and mouth that never changed,never telegraphed whether he was angry or pleased.
"Or it might be cocaine," Ellis countered."They found fifty kilos washed ashore someplace in Texas."
"McFaddin Beach," Wilson filled in."Sealed and wrapped in thick plastic. Someone missed a drop-off orpanicked and tossed it. Could be what we have here."
"Then shouldn't we radio it in and leave it for acutter to pick up?" Kesnick said as he glanced at Liz. She could tell hewas trying to let her know that he'd back her if she elected not to deploy.
Wilson noticed the glance. "It's up to you, Bailey.What do you want to do?"
She still didn't meet his eyes, didn't want to give himthe satisfaction of seeing even a hint of her reluctance.
"We should use the medevac board instead of thebasket," she said. "It'll be easier to slide it under the containerand strap it down."
Knowing he was surprised by her response, she simplyremoved her flight helmet, cutting off communication. If Ellis or Kesnick had something to say about her, she dared them to say it after her attempt atnonchalance.
She fingered strands of her hair back under her surf capand strapped on her lightweight Seda helmet. She attached the gunner's belt to her harness, positioned the quick strop over her shoulders, made sure to keep the friction slide close to the hoist hook. Finished, she moved to the door ofthe helicopter, squatted in position, and waited for Kesnick's signal.
She couldn't avoid looking at him. They had done thisroutine at least half a dozen times since she started at the air station. She suspected that Pete Kesnick treated her no differently than he had beentreating rescue swimmers for the last fifteen years of his career as a Coastieflight mechanic and hoist operator. Even now, he didn't second-guess her,though his steel-blue eyes studied her a second longer than usual before heflipped down his visor.
He tapped her on the chest, the signal for"ready"-two gloved fingers practically at her collarbone. Probablynot the same tap he used with male rescue swimmers. Liz didn't mind. It was a small thing, done out of respect more than anything else.
She released the gunner's belt, gave Kesnick a thumbs-upto tell him she was ready. She maintained control over the quick strop as hehoisted her clear of the deck. Then he stopped. Liz readjusted herself as thecable pulled tight. She turned and gave Kesnick another thumbs-up and descendedinto the rolling waters.
Without a survivor in the water Liz quickly assessed thesituation. The container was huge. By Liz's estimates, at least forty incheslong and twenty inches wide and deep. She recognized the battered whitestainless steel as a commercial-grade marine cooler. A frayed tie-down floatedfrom its handle bracket. Frayed, not cut. So maybe its owner hadn't intended toditch it, after all. She grabbed the tie-down, which was made of bright yellow-and-bluestrands twisted into a half-inch-thick rope, and looped it through her harnessto keep the cooler from bobbing away in the rotor wash of the helicopter.
She signaled Kesnick: her left arm raised, her right armcrossing over her head and touching her left elbow. She was ready for them todeploy the medevac board.
The bobbing container fought against her, pushing andpulling with each wave, not able to go any farther than the rope attached to herbelt allowed. It took two attempts but within fifteen minutes Liz had thefishing cooler attached to the medevac board. She cinched the restraints tight,hooked it to the cable, and raised her arm again, giving a thumbs-up.
No records broken, but by the time Kesnick hoisted herback into the helicopter, she could tell her crew was pleased. Not impressed,but pleased. It was a small step.
Lieutenant Commander Wilson still looked impatient. Lizbarely caught her breath, but yanked off her Seda helmet, exchanging it for herflight helmet with the communications gear inside. She caught Wilson in the middle of instructing Kesnick to open the latch.
"Shouldn't we wait?" Kesnick tried being thediplomat.
"It's not locked. Just take a peek."
Liz slid out of the way and to the side of the cabin,unbuckling the rest of her gear. She didn't want any part of this. As far asshe was concerned, her job was finished.
Kesnick paused and at first she thought he would refuse.He moved to her side and pushed back his visor, avoiding her eyes. The child-safetylatch slid back without effort but he had to use the palm of his hand to shovethe snap lock free. Liz saw him draw in a deep breath before he flung open thelid.
The first thing Liz noticed was the fish-measuring rulermolded into the lid. It seemed an odd thing to notice but later it would stickin her mind. A fetid smell escaped but it wasn't rotten fish. More like openinga Dumpster.
Inside she could see what looked like thick plastic wrapencasing several oblong objects, one large and four smaller. Not the squarebundles that might be cocaine.
"Well?" Wilson asked, trying to glance over his shoulder.
Kesnick poked at one of the smaller bundles with a glovedfinger. It flipped over. The plastic was more transparent on this side andsuddenly the content was unmistakable.
His eyes met Liz's and now the ever calm, poker-facedKesnick looked panicked.
"I think it's a foot," he said.
"I think it's a goddamn human foot."
From the Hardcover edition.